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Sonoma County grapples with ongoing outdoor poop problem along Russian River

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An influx of Bay Area visitors to Sonoma County’s bucolic riverlands has spiked in recent years, bringing with it a problem typically reserved for the privacy of one’s own home.

People are pooping in public. And they’re doing so in such great numbers that the Sonoma County Department of Transportation and Public Works will in the coming year debut new, anti-pooping signage in key spots like Steelhead Beach, Geysers Road and more.

“There’s no excuse for this,” Public Works Director Johannes Hoevertsz said. “The sign we have says, ‘no public pooping.’ We really need to drive the message that if you’re going to come to Sonoma County and be a guest, you can’t do this.”

County officials say the biggest culprits are drunk partiers who are too lazy to take a long walk at Steelhead Beach on the Russian River back to the facilities. Some have even relieved themselves in nearby neighbors’ yards.

Hoevertsz said he doesn’t think the homeless population is to blame because it tends to be a bigger problem after popular weekends at Petrified Forest Road, Porter Creek Road and Geysers Road.

“You see it with day use and overnight camping spots,” said Chris Brokate, Sonoma County Clean River Alliance founder. “It’s pretty bad. I don’t know if it’s as bad in the lower river as it is up north, from what I see.”

However, Brokate and Larry Laba, who owns rafting company Russian River Adventures, see the problem as mainly centering on the transient population that lives along the river.

Don McEnhill, executive director of RussianRiverkeeper, agreed, but he said the amount of dog poop and cow manure in and around the river dwarfs anything seen from humans.

“It’s always a matter of scale,” McEnhill said. “You’re talking about orders of magnitude of fecal matter beyond wild animals.”

When it comes to human waste, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has seen calls involving the homeless population, cyclists and party bus folks. It’s true that the areas are somewhat remote, but Sheriff’s Office Community Engagement Liaison Misti Wood, who has spoken with neighbors who have dealt with the remnants of people’s poor choices, said she doesn’t understand it.

“There is a restroom at Steelhead. It’s fully functioning,” Wood said. “I don’t know what would motivate somebody to publicly defecate across the street with a bathroom available. What our deputies have seen is that when people become overly intoxicated the first thing to go is judgment.”

The act violates a Sonoma County code that prohibits public urination an defecation. Children 9 years old or younger get a pass.

In cases near the river, the act also flouts a Fish and Game code that prohibits placing waste, among other things, within 150 feet of the high water mark of state waters, which include the Russian River.

Hoevertsz’s department is responsible for whatever filth is left within the public road right of way. Depending on the road, that can extend well beyond the physical roadway. Public Works has standing contracts with a couple of companies for cleaning up the waste. It’s considered hazardous waste and is treated with caution.

With costs reaching up to $60,000 for cleanup, Hoevertsz said he has worked with county Supervisors Lynda Hopkins and Susan Gorin to look at installing signs. The favored version features a person squatting over a stylized, swirly pile of poop — the whole scene crossed out with a red circle and line. Beneath it, the words “no public pooping.”

Wayfinding signs that point out the closest restroom may also be in play next year.

“You can float down the river from Healdsburg and have no idea where facilities are as you’re floating in a canoe,” Hopkins said. “Sometimes people are inebriated, and they do things they might not otherwise do.”

McEnhill, with Russian Riverkeeper, said such signs have been installed before, but many have been vandalized. He said it would be a good idea to restore the signs.

Hopkins said she met with Public Works and Regional Parks a little more than a week ago, and a meeting with residents in Forestville to brainstorm solutions was scheduled Sept. 21.

One possible solution already tested is an alcohol ban, something Sonoma County Regional Parks instituted in May at Steelhead and Sunset beaches. Parks Manager David Robinson said the ban reduced public drunkenness, trash and parking problems.

But more will likely need to be done, officials acknowledged, as the Russian River grows in popularity.

“The county has seen a significant increase in Russian River visitors over the past five years,” Robinson said. “The good news is that people view the river as a beautiful place for summer fun.”

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Why can’t I go?

Relieving oneself in the woods is sometimes necessary for backwoods campers and other adventurous types, but experts caution against thinking that, well, your stuff doesn’t stink. If a bear poops in the woods, it’s one thing. But human waste, like dog waste, inherently introduces new nutrients, and new sources of nitrogen and phosphorous, according to The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.

That organization said the requirement in some state and national parks to pack out solid human waste will likely become a more common practice. It’s one author and river guide Kathleen Meyer, who spent more than two decades around the Bay Area and Marin County, advocated for in her 1989 book, “How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art.”

The guide was aimed at easing awkwardness for city folks, as well as protecting the environment, according Meyer’s website.

McEnhill, of Russian Riverkeeper, said pet poop and human poop increases the intensity of potential pollution far beyond the wild animal population.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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